Dale Jones, 51 and Michael Wilt, 38 reported to work at the Caledonia Pit, a surface coal mine near Barton, Maryland at 5:30 am on Tuesday, April 17, 2007.  In the 275 feet-deep pit, Jones operated the excavator while Wilt ran the dozer.  By about 10:00 am that morning, something had gone terribly wrong.  The massive highwall collapsed, burying the two coal miners under 93,000 tons of rock.  John David Cook II, a co-worker and the shovel operator, dug night and day trying to reach Jones and Wilt.  A state mining official who was on-site during the rescue-recovery operation said “the guys wouldn’t stop.  They just wanted to get to those guys (Jones and Wilt).  They’re a pretty close-knit bunch of guys.” 

In MSHA’s accident investigation report, released on July 9, the agency issued three citations, all designated as “significant and substantial” (the most serious classification.)   One for failing to establish and follow a ground control plan, another for allowing miners to work near a dangerous highwall, and a third for an inadequate daily exam of the highwall.  The report describes in great detail the geology of the coal seams and rock structure in the mine, including the tremendous hazard created by the previous underground mining in the highwall itself.  MSHA’s report concludes:

“Severe subsidence above both the Sewickley and Pittsburgh coal seams…caused the highwall to be extremely fractured.  Pillar remnants in the Pittsburgh seam represented a severely weakened layer near the base of the highwall.  …the combination of these factors resulted in a very unstable highwall and resulted in the highwall failure.”

Technically, yes, all of this is true, but it’s only half the story. 

This fractured and highly-unstable 275 foot highwall did not become dangerous overnight.  The report notes that there were underground mines in this area dating back to 1888 and the steep highwall backs right up to those mined-out workings.  Imagine a steep wall and just behind it an area that looks like swiss cheese.  No doubt it is going to be unstable.  How in the world did MSHA officials inspect this mine and not see a disaster waiting to happen??

The mine operator, Tri-Star Mining, reports quarterly coal production from this mine since at least 1989.  This was not some new kid-on-the-block.  I looked at the mine’s inspection history dating back to 1998, and found an interesting trend.  From 1998-2000 (the latter part of the McAteer/Clinton Administration) MSHA inspectors issued an average of 11 citations per year.  From 2001-2006 (the Lauriski & Dye/GW Bush Administration) the number dropped to 2.66 citations per year.  A measure of enforcement vs compliance assistance? Maybe. 

I repeat, this treacherous and deadly highwall did not appear instantaneously.  It evolved and then persisted, and it was there at least long enough for MSHA, (which is required to conduct at least two inspections per year at surface mines) to observe it.  Yet, I can’t find a single citation for hazardous conditions related to ground control.  Most troubling, perhaps, is a statement in MSHA’s investigation report.  It refers to a letter sent by MSHA to the mine operator:

“The March 13, 2002 MSHA acknowledgement letter placed the operator on notice of the highwall instability hazards associated with surface operations intersecting old underground mining works.  It is clear from the language of this letter and statements during interviews that the operator and his agents were aware of the old underground mining works and the hazards that they were creating.  Despite having this knowledge, the operator failed to report, record, and take corrective action to eliminate these hazards.” (emphasis added for “MSHA acknowledgement letter”)

What in the world is an “MSHA acknowledgement letter”?   Last time I checked, the Mine Act says, if an inspector sees a violation, he shall issue a citation to the operator.*  Moreover, the 2002 letter is proof that MSHA knew that the highwall was unstable but didn’t do anything about it.  The report states that the operator didn’t have effective benching, didn’t orient the highwall correctly given the well-developed joint set, and didn’t address the instability created by the old mine workings.  Indeed, the mine operator didn’t do a lot of things that would have prevented the loss of two lives.  But, MSHA didn’t do its job either.  At least five years earlier, MSHA saw these problems, but never followed-up?  Never forced the mine operator to fix the problem?  Never issued a citation for inadequate ground control? 

This situation smells to me like some anti-enforcement compliance-assistance shenanigans.  And it smells rotten to me.   Miners, family members and lawmakers should be asking why an “acknowledgement letter” was sent to the operator in 2002 instead of a citation?  And, who made that decision?**

As Mrs. Linda Jones, recently widowed wife of Dale Jones said,

“MSHA’s as much to blame as the employer.  I think I would have shut’em down until they got a new ground plan.”

We need to stop leaving it to widows to draw attention to our failed workplace safety agencies.

[Update 7/12/07: Cumberland Times News "Families Still Grieve" follows-up on the story, including the widows' personal appeal to anyone with information about the Tri-Star operations to come forward.  The newspaper reports:

"Because both families believe the investigation didn't uncover everything leading up to the tragedy, they are making a plea for anyone who may have knowledge of what happened to speak up.  'If any worker knows anything, or any resident ... that might have been listening to the CB that day and heard any of those conversations, would just call MSHA or (the media) and report what they heard,' Linda [Jones] said, the family would be very grateful.”

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**I’m sending a FOIA request to MSHA to get the March 13, 2002 letter, but if anyone out there already has a copy, please post in the comment section below.

*The exact text is: “Section 104(a) If, upon inspection or investigation, the Secretary or his authorized representative believes that an operator of a coal or other mine subject to the Act has violated this Act, or any mandatory health or safety standard, rule, order, or regulation promulgated pursuant to this Act, he shall, with reasonable promptness, issue a citation to the operator.”

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